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Two for dinner

When I think of "Thanksgiving dinner," my mind plays a movie of family crowded around a table laden with our favorite foods. The movie is accompanied by a sound track of laughter and "please pass the potatoes." After four years of unusually quiet Thanksgiving holidays, my husband and I are finally anticipating a similar scene this year. But our first four empty nest Thanksgivings were quite different from my traditional imaginings!

Empty nest holidays are a reality of the midlife stage! How do we navigate them with grace and honesty, yet still celebrate? Here are some of the techniques husband Jack and I used over the last four years to help us stay connected with absent family and still celebrate the holidays in a memorable way.

Schedule video calls. We found that video calls work best when we schedule them around everybody's holiday plans, so we schedule in advance and save time slots specifically for family connection. One year, I created a family history quiz on and sent prizes to the winners--cheap fridge magnets from Amazon. Over the last four years, we learned to schedule calls on the day before or after the holiday, keep them short, keep the subject matter positive. But if one of the kids wants to talk longer, we are happy to stay on the line!

Share photos. If you are far away from family this year, take advantage of your smart phone's technology and send photos or short videos to your loved ones! They will love to see what you are doing, and it may reassure them that you are fine even though you aren't together this year. Personalized pictures and video sent directly to family are more meaningful than just posting to Facebook for everyone to see. Send photos of favorite foods or activities to your adult kids and your parents to let them know that you are thinking of them and looking forward to future holidays together!

Gather friends. I bet you aren't the only couple celebrating alone. Holidays are a great excuse to pool resources with other people and weigh down the dining room table with all sorts of deliciousness. Ask each person to share what they are thankful for, and be sure to ask them if there is a story behind the dish they bring. Last year, we celebrated Christmas with fellow empty nesters and spent the afternoon laughing while we ate almost an entire turkey together! (Husband Jack smoked it over charcoal and wood chips.) A day that might have been lonely was actually quite lovely.

Feed your community. During one COVID-19 holiday, Jack came up with a brilliant idea. "Let's feed all the people in the barracks!" he said. I thought he was crazy, but he gathered a team of military colleagues and came up with a plan. It involved me baking 5 turkeys! But since we were in a partial lockdown, there wasn't a good excuse for not baking said turkeys . . . so we did! The local military community pitched in, and we fed soldiers until they couldn't eat another crumb. Then we sent them back to their barracks with leftovers packed in ziplock bags. One of the best holidays of our lives! Are there people in your community who need your cooking expertise this Thanksgiving?

Plan an adventure! Who says empty nesters have to stay home and mourn? We didn't do that before we had kids, so why start now? A holiday usually means several days with no work obligations, so treat it like a vacation, and plan an adventure that fits in your budget. A small cabin in the woods and a stack of books might be the perfect way to spend a few days! While stationed in Germany, we spent one Thanksgiving in Italy. We drove through Switzerland on Thanksgiving Day and had our Thanksgiving "feast" at McDonalds! We created new and different memories and set ourselves free from feelings of loneliness. And we experienced no guilt for eating pasta instead of turkey!

Choose gratitude. We often assign activities or rituals to holidays as means of celebration: think pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or sending cards at Christmas. These traditions are meaningful and wonderful! But the holiday itself has deeper meaning beyond the practices that surround it, and we can tap into that meaning whatever the empty nest brings our way. I'm reminded of a powerful passage written by the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines,

though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food,

though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NIV)

Habakkuk was determined to rejoice in God's presence and preservation in spite of his outward circumstances. There is no better expression of thankfulness than to worship without respect to our situation. When we choose gratitude on a quiet, empty nest holiday, we are truly celebrating and trusting in the goodness of God.

Happy Thanksgiving, empty nest friends! I'm praying for your hearts to be encouraged and uplifted no matter your circumstances. God is still good, so let's celebrate joyfully this year and make a memorable midlife Thanksgiving!

I'll be taking next week off to celebrate Thanksgiving with family, but when I return in December I will be writing about Christmas gifts that build a legacy for our adult children (and grandkids, too!). See you November 29!


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